Vol. 39 No. 4, p. 12-14
On September 17, I moderated a panel at the 2020 International Design Conference (IDC) that posed the question of whether or not graduate school is worth it. This is a giant inquiry, not easily answered in a 45-minute online conversation. The panel’s conclusion was “It depends.” It depends on who you are, why you’re returning to (or continuing with) school, the format and content of the curriculum, which faculty you’ll work with, and how much it’s going to cost.
As the moderator, I didn’t contribute my own perspective. But as a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s MFA program and current assistant professor of product design at Western Michigan University, I have a lot of opinions on the topic.
The Path to Graduate School
For me, getting an advanced degree was a requirement in order to continue teaching at the college level. I started as an adjunct professor at Wentworth Institute of Technology hortly after earning my Bachelor of Science in Industrial Design from the University of Cincinnati. This part-time position continued for a few years until the department chair offered me a full-time term contract.
The hierarchy of higher education is tumultuous. Typically, adjunct professors aren’t compensated especially well. Pay is based on the number of credit hours taught and rarely includes the benefits (like health insurance and a retirement plan) that come with full-time work. In addition to better compensation, teaching full-time offers more opportunities to engage with students and other faculty members both in and out of the classroom.
In order to secure a long-term teaching position, colleges often require prospective faculty members to have a terminal degree. This is how, seven years after earning my undergraduate degree and with more than five years of teaching experience, I found myself going back to school. In my case, the question of “Is grad school worth it?” was straightforward: I love teaching, and in order to keep teaching, I needed another degree.
Illustration by Carly Hagins, IDSA
Learning About Research
Let’s take a moment to interrogate the question of why a terminal degree is a requirement for faculty. At many institutions, professors are more than teachers—they are researchers too. Research done at universities results in the creation of new knowledge that can impact professional practice and the field at large. Graduate education offers an immersion into the world of academic research. Grad students may also have the opportunity to gain experience either teaching their own courses or supporting faculty members as teaching assistants. For those who will become professors at research institutions, graduate school can serve as the ultimate training ground.
The Carnegie Classification of Institutions is the higher education standard in defining which schools are considered research institutions. The Carnegie system tracks the number of doctoral degrees granted by a school each year as well as the school’s total research expenditures. Design is taught at a variety of institutions, ranging from schools with a heavy research focus to those that focus their curriculum entirely on career preparation. Although many universities require faculty to have a terminal degree, for those teaching at non-research institutions, that requirement is misguided. In graduate school, potential future professors invest time planning, executing, and evaluating academic research, when more focus on (and practice with) teaching may offer better preparation for their intended career paths.
Design Outside of Industry
Preparation for a career in teaching is not the only reason to seek out a graduate degree in design. Grad school offers the opportunity to create work outside the vacuum (and financial constraints) of corporate industry. Said differently, it’s a chance to do projects that would be difficult to get paid for in any other context. I centered my own graduate research trajectory on public health and well-being. This led to projects that were successfully implemented on Notre Dame’s campus and culminated in a graduate thesis rooted in systems theory and behavior change.
Across disciplines, graduate education is generally seen as an opportunity to deepen knowledge and understanding of one particular area of expertise. A graduate education in design offers this opportunity through focused time to do work of your choosing. For practitioners who have become captivated by emerging trends or technology, grad school is a chance to become an expert. This level of experience can open doors to new career paths.
One caveat, however. Many people find their way to design-based graduate programs holding an undergraduate degree in a different discipline. Such students often need to dedicate significant time to learning fundamental skills, which makes it almost impossible for them to create work that is elevated beyond the undergraduate level. This dilutes the value of a graduate degree to the student, the granting institution, and the discipline. The Rhode Island School of Art and Design has devised one workaround for this with their MFA in graphic design. They offer two tracks: a shorter two-year option for students with a background in the field and a longer three-year option for those without. By the time they reach graduation, every student has the experience and expertise necessary to produce sophisticated graduate-level work. I would love to see this sort of two-tiered graduate program more widely adopted by design schools.
Some people with undergraduate degrees in design who, like me, want to teach at the college level choose to pursue a graduate degree in a field other than design. Although I know and respect colleagues who have chosen that path, I don’t believe it serves the same purpose. Sure, it’s helpful to be able to offer students bits of information gleaned from a degree focused on business or sustainability. But everyone improves with practice, and a few years of advanced study focused on design will make even the most seasoned professional a better designer who is more equipped to work with students.
This is all to say, I agree with the outcome of the IDC panel. Grad school can be worth it, especially for those who are interested in teaching or curious about digging into work that falls outside the realm of corporate-funded design. As a design educator, I see tremendous potential for graduate programs to evolve in order to more directly address the needs and interests of designers plotting a career in industry while also better preparing the educators of tomorrow. I can imagine a future in which designers return to school in order to take the lead in developing new and novel approaches to design research, concept development, and manufacturing. I can imagine a future in which grad school is, without a doubt, worth it.
— Carly Hagins, IDSA, assistant professor of product design,
Western Michigan University